The missing Leadership link

Published by Tony Quinlan on

Sometimes it feels like an article pursues you around until you pay attention. (The truth, of course, is far more mundane – just that it is a piece that resonates among the various media sources I go to.) The latest examples is an article in The American Scholar, originally from an address at West Point military academy in October 2009.

Solitude and Leadership: an article by William Deresiewicz | The American Scholar

I'd picked it up from the ether at some point a few months ago, then when I opened my latest copy of Utne Reader* last night.

I think it's highly relevant, although I don't agree with parts of it. I do, however, think that too often we've let ourselves and our organisations off the hook. Going along with getting things done, rather than challenging, answering questions rather than answering them. From the article:

So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.” I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever. And this approach would indeed take them far in life. They would come back for their 25th reunion as a partner at White & Case, or an attending physician at Mass General, or an assistant secretary in the Department of State.

That is exactly what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders. Educating people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles, people the university can brag about. People who make it to the top. People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.

But I think there’s something desperately wrong, and even dangerous, about that idea.

In terms of things like the Cynefin model, it feels like we've fallen back into complicated. I've done courses in the past – very powerful courses – that encouraged me to "break out of the box" in order to get things done. To go for the big goal. To charge at top speed, to get creative. But rarely have they looked at things like how to decide whether the goal is appropriate, or whether we should be thinking about goals at all. (Great in some areas, not good in others is my view.)

…for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper tise. What we don’t have are leaders.

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.

And there is a great pressure in organisations not to ask difficult questions – not just from those above us, but also from peers, who are scared of what happens if we rock the boat. There is too an assumption that leaders and vision only become relevant at the higher echelons, that until we reach that point we should be focussed first on tasks and efficiency, then on expertise and experience, then on managing people. The problem too often is that, having taken years to go through these areas, we have become completely moulded into habits that do not allow for real leadership.

I do, however, take on the key point that Deresiewicz makes – it echoes a point I heard made at a lecture at Templeton College on Leadership in the public sector:

It was very easy to get taken over by the in-tray – in any worthwhile top job there's enough of it to fill virtually any number of hours – and simply spend oneself entirely in dealing with the urgent, complex, interesting and inportant things of which it is always full. You may then become essentially a problem-solver and a specific decision-taker. Fine, no doubt, but however good you are at it, it doesn't amount to leadership. Leadership is essentially about setting the agenda, not merely responding to it; about setting direction and style [in public service organisations]. And hardly anyone can do that without standing back and thinking. That needs time to spare; and for senior folk that usually doesn't just happen – it has to be planned and fought for.

Read the article – it's worth it. And then find a way to block out the diary properly – not just to leave it blank and find yourself in the office and therefore available and interrupted, but to really be able to step away and think in peace.**

*A great magazine I've been reading on and off for 15 years, since it was recommended in the first MBA text I was given: "The Art of the Long View". Sadly, all the MBA textbooks after that rather paled in comparison. As did the course.

**This exhortation is meant for myself more than anyone else…